The despair is palpable now and I, at last, am beginning to share it. The talented young people spoke well and passionately and poignantly from the floor as always, and good points were made and the applause was real, and the hard-nosed romantic radical energy unabated in this, Labor’s most glorious and most frustrated year since the mid-eighties.
But the joyless, upstanding and unrelenting acclamation as Gillard arrived looking gorgeous and smiling like a lighthouse, which followed a montage of Whitlam, Keating, Hawke and Curtin up on the screen doing good things and saying great things, and her speech from the Sydney Town Hall stage, which is unfurling as I write this, a speech which boasts of equally good and equally purposeful and equally worthwhile things long promised and lately delivered, a speech well spoken and really well written, occurred nonetheless at a sort of dwindling distance from present reality, as if the sound was turned off. Not even Labor is listening any more, and it’s a worry.
And the joyless standing ovation that followed showed this too. No-one registers anything much anymore. At lunch with Nathan Rees I was told he was refused entrance by a young woman who didn’t know who he was (‘Name?’ ‘Rees.’ ‘And your surname?’ ‘That is my surname.’ ‘Can I see some identification?’ ‘Sure.’ ‘This isn’t signed. You have to sign this.’ ‘Okay, I’m signing it.’ ‘No, you’ll have to get someone to identify you.’ ‘Are you actually IN the Labor Party?’ ‘Of course I am. How dare you.’) and seemed free in her mind of all modern history, and it’s a worry.
We are sleepwalking towards a cliff, and we needn’t be. We should know more than we do, and we refuse to learn it.
And it’s a worry.
One of the things we should know is the pas de deux with capitalism has ended in catastrophe and is no longer of any electoral use to Labor, or Labour, or the US Democrats or the Social Democrats of Europe, and ‘austerity’ is as popular everywhere as leprosy. So to say we should avoid ‘class war’ with Gina Rinehart, the nation’s most disliked female, is lunacy. The wickedness of the rich is as vivid now as it was in Dickens’ day, in even Hogarth’s day, and we should go after them with fire and sword and buckets of mud and tar and feathers. Rinehart gets two million dollars an hour, and if we took, each half hour, a million of that away from her and spent it on cancer research and high school orchestras the nation would cheer us to the echo.
But Labor seems fatally paralysed by good manners, and cannot say anything bad about anybody but Julian Assange.
Another thing they should know is the conference should be three days long and twice a year. As it is each significant delegate (Albo, Verity Firth, Nathan Rees) gets maybe only two minutes to speak and spends the rest of the year feeling stifled and frustrated. The purpose of gatherings like this is to give its component young people an opportunity to ‘vent’, to say their say for ten minutes and test their public speaking skills against a big, aggressive audience and see what, at the end of it, their status is, if any.
As always, the most impressive people on their feet were the unionists. Mixing experience with eloquence and a rage for justice, they commanded the space and awed the congregation as they always do.
For me this conference in this great Town Hall is like Brigadoon: the good village of legendary friends who do not age, and century after century are there singing the good old songs of justice for all.
I hope I see at least fifteen more of them.
And so it goes.